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Research undertaken by CareerSeekers has found a sustainable, successful internship program relies on small steps and realistic expectations.
“It is incredibly important to manage the expectations of all stakeholders,” says CareerSeekers Deputy CEO Ash Nugent. “By the time an organisation approaches us they are ready for significant impact – they want results.”
The program is often driven by passion – the executive team wants to offer practical help to highly skilled refugees, or an employee action group is driving the change – but all the good intentions in the world can go to waste if the program is implemented too hastily.
As with any other change, the success of the program within an organisations requires support from high-level staff and executives to make sure that it is properly resourced and that appropriate support is provided to the teams and managers hosting interns.
This means mapping exactly how the program will help the organisation achieve its goals, whether that’s by building a pipeline of skilled candidates, improving team cohesion or the sense that the business has a purpose beyond the bottom line, or increasing diversity across the organisation.
“How does this fit with the corporate vision? What’s the model, the strategy? It isn’t just an HR decision; it is a business decision. The business has to be committed,” says Amanda Matehaere, General Manager HR Business Bank at Westpac Banking Group.
Participation is a broader business decision because the program must be appropriately resourced for it to be a success.
“We don’t enter these arrangements lightly,” Matehaere explains. “We want to put in the commitment and the infrastructure. We have to invest the time and the energy.”
That time and energy is substantial – onboarding a new staff member and managing them both take considerable resources, so finding the right manager and team for an intern to join will play a large part in the success of your first cohort.
“We don’t want people just putting their hands up; this is a great idea but in practice it is a different experience,” says Josette Owen, Programs Manager – Talent Acquisition at Westpac. “We need to match the right people with the right needs.”
Meaghan Davis, Lendlease Australia’s Head of People and Culture, agrees. “Find the right part of your business and the right managers first. You have to have the right environment and the right appetite.”
Staring small has become a driving philosophy of the CareerSeekers program – those organisations that have started small have found success and scaled.
“Since we placed our first intern in early 2016, we’ve placed hundreds of humanitarian entrants in internships at a diverse range of businesses,” Nugent says. “Each organisation’s commitment began with one or two interns that have led to positive outcomes for the business, and grown from there.”
A commitment to one or two interns doesn’t place too heavy a burden to those on the ground – particularly those involved in training and support – or pose too great a risk to the business.
Starting small also means that the organisation can put into place their best practices for onboarding, development and appraisal, as they only have a small number of interns to manage, and only over a short, defined period.
It also allows organisations to adapt and innovate over time, just as would happen with any business process. Organisations can work with CareerSeekers to adjust their iteration of the program to best suit their business needs while setting the interns up for the greatest success possible.
“CareerSeekers was working with us to learn as we progressed,” says Adam Buxton, Head of Talent Acquisition at Westpac. “They were coming in and saying: ‘Let’s test how this would work best’. It was a test-and-learn process from both sides.”
Time is of the essence here. The CareerSeekers 12-week internship model allows the participant to enter an organisation with a safety net – they have guaranteed structured support together with short-term timeframes and defined review procedures.
CareerSeekers participants have significant professional experience, but this extra support helps participants adjust to a different working environment. And it works both ways – the limited 12-week period is easier to digest for both participants and employers.
“Rather than committing to offering a full-time position at the outset, employers only need commit to a 12-week paid internship,” says Nugent. “If at the end an ongoing role is available, fantastic. If not, the intern leaves with invaluable local experience and the organisation has been able to test its operational capacity to onboard individuals with unique personal circumstances.”
The 12-week period builds confidence on both sides – the intern learns more about working in Australia and transferring their skills and experience to a new country. The organisation, meanwhile, sees its own benefits.
Having success with interns builds momentum within an organisation, and makes it more likely that involvement in the program can be continued or expanded.
“Once we had a few successes, I could be louder about it and engage the leadership team who now really embrace it. We have actually had six candidates in the past year,” says Diane Samaroo, Ericsson’s Senior Human Resources Manager – Region SE Asia and Oceania, and Chair of the organisation’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.
Demonstrating the quick wins – interns’ contributions to their teams, the value they brought and their line managers’ assessment of their skills and abilities – is essential, as the initial program lasts 12 weeks. Contributions to those longer-term business objectives that were identified in the decision to welcome CareerSeekers interns in the first place should also be considered. The power of purpose to unite a team is one.
The positive is how great you feel when someone you’ve been working with gets a job,” says City of Sydney CEO Monica Barone. “They’ve started a life – a proper life. We feel really good about that.
In 2015 Westpac began working with CareerSeekers, with the lofty aim of contributing to an effort to drive diversity throughout the 32,000 employee-strong banking business.
Although Westpac is one of Australia’s largest employers, it was important to start with a small number of interns hosted within in an easy-to-manage business unit. The bank’s retail business was selected.
The first intern to undertake the challenge was a Farsi speaker with a background in financial services, in a branch in Sydney’s western suburbs – an area known for cultural diversity, with languages other than English spoken in 42 per cent of households.
During that first internship, Westpac and CareerSeekers were able to establish and test a system that would allow interns to be onboarded and placed throughout the bank’s extensive business network.
Within months, Westpac was hosting additional interns in its retail business, and this success quickly created appetite for further involvement across other Westpac business units, with the program expanding from retail banking into HR, marketing and more.
The definition of success varies from program to program, so it’s important to define what it looks like for your organisation and how it will be measured, and to set expectations accordingly.
Two common goals for employers are focused on corporate social responsibility and tapping into a new source of talent.
Simply giving someone their first job and local work experience is the end-game of the former. The focus is on giving people a start and, for this goal to pay off, it’s important to celebrate the employer’s role in helping people settle in their new country faster.
For the latter, success is direct hiring at the end of the internship.
Participants’ measures of success can mirror those of employers: an opportunity to gain local experience that will eventually lead to full-time employment is the ultimate outcome, regardless of whether that employment is with the company that gave them their first internship or not.
Participants also look forward to employment as a way to improve their local language skills and to learn more about the local culture and customs.
Our experience shows that regardless of whether staff come via traditional channels, a targeted recruitment program or an internship program, sometimes hirers get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.
So it’s best to set expectations early on with the business units hosting interns – success is never guaranteed in the hiring process, and nor should we expect it to be in the case of an internship or a targeted recruitment program.
Sometimes there is a skill match issue; sometimes there’s an inability to fit with a team culture, and setting expectations creates a tolerance factor across an organisation so that one instance of an intern not working out doesn’t write off the whole program.
When it doesn’t work out, we learn a lot and apply those learnings to make the program stronger for future participants and business units.
Local language proficiency, both written and oral, is always on our radar.
Best practice is to assess every candidate individually based on the specific role. For example, customer service roles may require a higher standard of oral communication than IT programmer roles.
One thing is certain: language proficiency improves drastically even within the first week of employment.
Allowing someone to be immersed in the language gives them the best opportunity to learn and practice.
It is important that managers give participants an opportunity to ask for of clarification and ensure the channels of communication remain open and encouraging.
Of course, humanitarian entrants are not a homogenous group, so these differences are not necessarily the same each time. However, CareerSeekers provides support to both the participant and employment partner around cultural differences.
For participants, the work readiness training they attend before an internship focuses on everything from values and behaviours commonly sought in Australia, to workplace differences (for example, an agile work environment), to scenarios based on what we have seen with previous participants.
For employers, we run a briefing ahead of the intern’s first day to prepare them for working with humanitarian entrants. We speak about the sector, and some of the common challenges that might arise and how to respond. At minimum this is held with the line manager, but often with the broader team.
CareerSeekers is reachable at any time, to provide the necessary support, and welcome any and all questions – our typical advice is ‘if in doubt reach out’.